The 25th of November, 2016 will probably go down in the annals of Cuban history as the end of an era. The date marked the death of the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, prompting mixed grief and joy along with tributes for the man who suprisingly defied the United States for half a century.
This determined, iron-fisted leader survived 11 U.S. administrations (all of which, by the way, were hell-bent on eliminating him), and over 200 assassination attempts by the CIA, MI6, and other Cuban rival factions. He managed to maintain the communist nature of Cuba during the Cold War, while being just a 100 miles away from the lion’s den itself (the United States). He has perhaps the rarest distinction a leader can have : He was both respected and hated at the same time. While he was respected for his sheer grit, he was widely hated for his communist and authoritarian ideologies. Join me as I try to deconstruct one of the world’s most complex personalities.
Born August 13, 1926 to a prosperous Spanish immigrant landowner and a Cuban mother of humble background, Castro was said to be a quick learner and a keen baseball player. From his childhood, his behaviour was characterised as being overly dominating and authoritarian. Educated in private Jesuit boarding schools, Castro grew up in wealthy circumstances amid the poverty of Cuba but was also imbued with a sense of Spanish pride from his teachers. From an early age, Castro showed he was intellectually gifted, but he was also something of a troublemaker and was often more interested in sports than studies. Around that time, relations between Spain and the United States were tense, which created an atmosphere of anti-Americanism in the Castro household. Thus, he treated Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista’s policy of friendliness with the Americans with disgust. He vowed to protect his country from what he called, “Western commercialism”. He reached out to Batista several times, asking him to rethink and reconsider his pro-American policy. He failed.
The over-nationalistic identity he possessed revolted against the ongoing turn of events. Thus, beginning in 1958, Castro began a campaign of guerrilla warfare to overthrow Batista. Batista responded with an all-out attack, Operation Verano, in which the army aerially bombarded forested areas and villages suspected of aiding Castro’s forces. This violent response led to the steep drop in Batista’s favourability ratings among the local populations. Thus local population enthusiatically supported Castro, who promised them a secure and independent future. Castro’s guerilla campaign ended in early 1959, when his forces successfully captured the Cuban capital of Havana.
Right from his first day in office, Castro followed a policy of natonalisation and communism, thus placing Cuba in the Soviet Union’s communist sphere of influence. Castro implemented far-reaching reforms by nationalizing factories and plantations in an attempt to end U.S. economic dominance on the island. This deeply hurt the ego of the U.S., which at that time was on a wild-goose chase around the globe, hunting down communist regimes. Just imagine, that Castro had maintained a fully functioning communist regime, just 100 miles for the U.S, under an extensive sanctions regime. This gives us a clear picture of Castro’s sheer grit and determination.
The USSR sent more than 100 Spanish-speaking advisers to help organize Cuba’s defense committee. In February 1960, Cuba signed a trade agreement to buy oil from the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations. When U.S.-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process the oil, Castro expropriated them, and the United States retaliated by cutting Cuba’s import quota on sugar, thus beginning what would become a decades-long contentious relationship between the two countries.
To his credit however, Castro made improvements were made to health care and education, however he maintained a dictatorial control over the country and brutally persecuted or imprisoned anyone thought to be enemies of the regime. Thousands of dissidents were killed or died trying to flee the dictatorship. Castro was also responsible for fomenting communist revolutions in countries around the world. He was thus, CIA’s number 1 target for assassination. From 1959 to 1990, the CIA carried out nearly 150 assassination attempts on Castro, all of which failed. On the other hand, Castro enjoyed very good relations with the Soviet Union, and he famously declared “a war on the Soviet Union equates to a war on Cuba”. In the 1970s, Castro continued to promote himself as the leading spokesperson for Third World countries by providing military support to pro-Soviet forces in Angola, Ethiopia and Yemen.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union sent Cuba’s economy into a tailspin, Castro’s revolution began to lose momentum. Without cheap oil imports and an eager Soviet market for Cuban sugar and other goods, Cuban unemployment and inflation grew. The contraction of the Cuban economy resulted in 85 percent of its markets disappearing.
Yet Castro was very adept at keeping control of the government during dire economic times. He pressed the United States to lift the economic embargo, but it refused. Castro then adopted a quasi-free market economy and encouraged international investment. He also legalized the U.S. dollar and encouraged limited tourism, and in 1996 he visited the United States to invite Cuban exiles living there to return to Cuba to start businesses.
In the late 1990s, speculation began to arise over Castro’s age and well-being. Numerous health problems had been reported over the years, the most significant occurring in 2006, when Castro underwent surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding. In a dramatic announcement, on July 31, 2006, Castro designated his brother Raúl as the country’s temporary leader. On February 19, 2008, 81-year-old Fidel Castro permanently gave up the Cuban presidency due to his deteriorating physical condition. He handed over power to his brother Raúl Castro, who was 76 years old at the time.
Though not involved in the day-to-day affairs of running Cuba, Fidel Castro still maintained a certain degree of political influence both at home and abroad. All of this has ended with Fidel’s death on the 25th of November. Thousands of Cubans lined up to pay tribute to their leader at a memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana where he had delivered many speeches throughout his rule. At the same time, Cuban exiles around the world are celebrating the death of the man, they believe was a tyrant. This again shows that even after his death, Fidel Castro’s legacy will influence popular opinion in Cuba for a long time to come.
“Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.” – Fidel Castro
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